Sustainability, an Ongoing Story

Jan 6, 2020

Did you know the Urban Land Institute was founded in 1936 and Earth Day will be 50 years old April 22, 2020!

The concept of living sustainably on the land has been around since shepherds moved their grazing herds from place to place and farmers rotated their crops.  In the last century, however, it has taken on new significance and touches every person on earth, rural, suburban or urban.  Our profession, the built environment of architecture, engineering and construction, has and will continue to play a major role in sustainability and our lives.

April 22, 1970.  The first Earth Day saw 20 million Americans march for a cleaner, healthier earth.  The focus was on cleaning up the messes we had made on land and in the air and water, and passing legislation to clean up and keep spaces clean.  By the end of 1970, we saw the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean AirClean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

The energy crisis of the early 1970s contributed to the sense of urgency.  I remember the movement to forego outdoor Christmas lights to save energy.  We turned house thermometers up or down a few degrees. On the downside, new schools were built with very few windows, and by the 1980s sick building syndrome became a real thing. Buildings were constructed extremely tight, but without minimums for air circulation.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle gained traction and is still strong today.  You can find online programs for you and your kids. Scientists, engineers and designers ramped up their efforts to harness renewable energy – solar, hydro, wind, geothermal and biomass.  The first commercial wind turbines were installed in the 1970s and solar panels became cost effective around 1980.

A pivotal point came in May 1989 at the American Institute of Architects [AIA] Annual Convention.  A group of architects, led by Bob Berkebile co-opted the conference and proposed a resolution, ‘CPR: Critical Planet Rescue,’ which passed unanimously. Shortly after, AIA created COTE, the Committee on the Environment.

Energy Star, a rating system for buildings, appliances, computers, heating and cooling, and more, was created by United States Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency in March 1992.  The US Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded 1993 and it created LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  The LEED rating system evaluates both physical and intellectual aspects of a building including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process, location and linkages, awareness and education.

Adoption of sustainable practices rapidly increased in the built industry.  We built with less waste and recycled more.  We specified more durable and renewable materials, fewer chemicals, fair trade and locally sourced materials and wood from certified sustainable forests.  Along the way LIGHT and AIR came back.  Daylight harvesting and LED lighting are transforming the places we work, go to school and live at home.  Minimum air quality standards have remedied and preempted many a sick building. The link between sustainability and healthy design was forged.

The Center for Active Design was launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012. Active Design incorporates evidence-based design strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets and urban spaces. It supports movement and flexibility in built spaces; helps create safer paths for pedestrians and cyclists; and promotes active and passive design including lighting, visibility and wayfinding for increased safety.

The WELL Building Standard was launched in 2014 after six years of study.  It supports and advances human health and wellness through design practices regarding air, water quality, lighting, material use, mobility and comfort. Fitwel is another organization dedicated to leading and supporting wellness and healthy building design and operation.  It was piloted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then partnered with the Center for Active Design in 2016.

Google ‘sustainability and social justice’ and you will see a conversation that began decades ago.  Prompted by recent cataclysmic weather events around the globe, social justice has become a leading topic in professional, societal and political circles.

With every advancement in leadership, science, technology, collaboration and social justice, the A/E/C community has stepped up. Most recently we have set our sights on major initiatives such as the AIA 2030 Commitment, the Living Building Challenge and Net Zero buildings.  But those three are topics for another day…soon.

Environmental Stewardship. Energy Efficiency. Recycling. Wellness. Social Justice. Sustainability.
The focus hasn’t shifted.  It just continues to grow.


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